Three brief pieces on having a gut instinct and having to look harder and further when your first check-ups reveal nil amiss…
A corporate detective story
Financial Times (Asia edition) Thurs March 10 2011, page 10
When he was a trainee accountant, Ian Powell was sent to audit an oil storage depot in the Midlands. On a bitterly cold night, he had to clamber to the top of a dozen rail tankers to check oil levels with a dipstick. But something did not feel right.
Mr Powell, now chairman of the UK unit of PwC, the professional services firm, noticed that certain tankers were riding higher on their springs than others. This suggested a lighter load – yet his readings did not indicate that they contained less oil. “I couldn’t understand why,” he recalls.
The resulting investigation revealed that someone had defrauded the depot. In some tankers a hidden cylinder – a tank within a tank – had been fashioned around the hole where the dipstick was inserted in order to overstate how much oil was inside.
Which put me in mind of one of CS Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower” stories. It’s during the Napoleonic wars. Hornblower is a midshipman or junior lieutenant and the ship he is serving on captures a bunch of cargo barges in the Mediterranean. He is given charge of one carrying rice. He’s worried that it was damaged during the chase and capture, so has soundings taken of the hold to see if it’s taken on any water. The soundings come up bone dry. Somethings not quite right, but he’s young and exhausted and gets some sleep. When he wakes in the morning, he realises that the barge isn’t handling well. It’s sluggish. He repeats the check – still dry. He calls the barge’s captured captain onto deck. The captain points out the cargo is rice… rice that has been soaking up all the water that’s been coming in. Thus the dry soundings. As Hornblower, horrified, realises this, the planks of the deck start buckling upwards and the ship starts bursting at the seams…
Ah, Berners-Lee bless google (search terms hornblower + rice + short story”) and Berners-Lee bless wikipedia…
In The Cargo of Rice, aboard the Indefatigable, the newly situated Midshipman Hornblower commandeers the French ship Marie Galante, carrying a cargo of rice from New Orleans, by order of Captain Pellew after engaging it in battle. It is Hornblower’s first time in command of a ship since joining the Royal Navy. He is instructed to take the captured French ship and her crew to a British port where he is to receive his next orders. Sailing is relatively smooth for Hornblower and his four seamen, until one of the crew (Matthews) informs him that the ship is taking on water from somewhere. Hornblower recalls that the Marie Galante was struck below the hull’s waterline by a cannonball from the Indefatigable before her capture. They check for moisture but find none until it is pointed out that the dried rice will absorb all of it. They hastily attempt to patch the hole with a sail, but by then the rice has expanded so much that the ship is breaking apart. A massive attempt to jettison the rice comes too late and Hornblower commands all hands to abandon ship and Hornblower’s crew and the French prisoners are left at sea in an open boat.
One more. A Readers’ Digest (I think) anecdote about someone dining at a really expensive and snooty restaurant with a famous wine cellar. There’s a supercilious sommelier (of course), and the guy ends up with some fabulously expensive glass of wine in front of him. It is indeed really really good, but the guy is suspicious – it’s not quite right. He asks questions about the provenance of it. The answers are ok, but then the sommelier haughtily brings the bottle itself out. Indeed, it is the vintage advertised. The guy’s about to concede when he is holding the bottle, and asks “just one thing. How did you get chilled wine out of this room temperature bottle.” Huzzah!
As Jason Bourne counsels Nicky Parsons in “The Bourne Ultimatum“ – “if something feels wrong, it probably is.”
Listen to your gut. Don’t trust your tests, they may give you a false negative. When this tips over into rank hypochondria and neuroticism resistant to common sense, I don’t exactly know. It’s a toughie!!)
There have been lots of cases too of pilots relying on instruments and ignoring other dissonant information – the one that ended with the long glide to the Azores because fuel had been leaking but the gauge didn’t show that is a case in point, with a happier ending than you usually get…